In defense of Trace Malloy

Earlier in the week, I posted an excerpt from The Big Empty. It was the opening to Chapter 2, in which Trace Malloy punches Blaine Witherspoon in the nose. 

My wife read it, and she was genuinely upset. 

“Why did you post that?” she asked. “It makes Malloy sound mean. It makes Witherspoon seem like the victim.”

I was surprised by her reaction. 

“You didn’t put in the part that explains why Malloy punched him,” she added. “Witherspoon insulted Malloy’s mother. That’s not in the post.” 

I hadn’t even considered that. I was simply trying to post an excerpt that wasn’t too long, but my wife is, of course, right. Without the context that comes later, the scene portrays Malloy rather harshly. 

As a writer, I found it both amazing and gratifying that my wife was defending one of my fictional characters. Granted, she’s my most loyal reader, but I’m still amazed that she identified with Malloy so much that she worried how blog readers might feel about him based on that one scene. 

That scene, by the way, was originally the opening for the entire book. I later added the preface and another chapter ahead of it because I felt the characters needed to be developed a bit more before we got to that point of conflict.   

Anyway, in Malloy’s defense, here’s another excerpt, from later in the same chapter, that provides more context: 

The battle had intensified as more homes were built in the subdivision, and each owner seemed to want — or to think they deserved — a pool. It was the stupid pond, though, that stuck in Malloy’s craw. For all Witherspoon’s self-proclaimed environmentalism, he didn’t seem to appreciate the water situation. It was as if they thought all their statistics and Internet-gathered data meant more than local knowledge. Malloy had tried to explain the interaction between limestone and low water levels and what would happen when the aquifer dropped below a certain point.

Around Conquistador, people his parents’ age still talked about the drought in the early Fifties, when the water smelled like sulfur. The aquifer could still hold plenty of water, but once the homies drew the water table down, nobody would want to drink it or swim in it or smell it in their precious little pond. They were coming off of two years of drought and possibly facing a third. Malloy hadn’t seen it this dry in years, and the old-timers were talking about the Fifties again half a decade later.  

Ranchers, like farmers, don’t forget droughts. It was that simple. A drought was a blatant reminder of how little control a cowboy has over his own livelihood. If there’s one thing the Big Empty teaches you quickly, it’s that you don’t make the same mistake twice. When it came to the weather, the land, or the livestock, Malloy had learned to listen to the elders. Witherspoon’s ears were clogged with arrogance, and Malloy had run out of patience. Tonight, he’d allowed the months of exasperation to get the best of him. Still, Witherspoon had that pop coming, and more.


As a representative of the town’s original—and biggest—employer, the Conquistador Ranch, he needed to work with Witherspoon. Instead, the cowboy in him had won out. He felt torn between his job and his livelihood, two things that had always seemed the same until the first wood frames of Rolling Ranch Estates started appearing on the horizon.

Witherspoon didn’t understand that, of course. He couldn’t understand it. He couldn’t understand Malloy’s frustration, his growing feeling of obsolescence. Malloy had felt like the homie was baiting him. The conversation replayed itself in Malloy’s mind.

“I think we all understand the need for water,” Witherspoon said, in a tone so condescending it immediately reminded Malloy of the first ranch supervisor he’d worked for in Kansas.

“If you understood it, you’d turn off that damn fountain,” Malloy had fired back.

“Mr. Malloy, the people here are trying to build homes. We want to build a community. We moved here to get away from the city, the crime. We want our community to be safe and attractive, and our lake is a big part of that.”

“Well, first of all, your ‘lake’ isn’t much bigger than a stock tank, and secondly, some of us make our livings out here, and a big part of that depends on water. On a hot day, a cow can drink twenty-five gallons of water, and we’ve got about twelve thousand of them out there.”

Both men had pushed to their feet, staring across the table while the ten or so other board members for the Rolling Ranch Estates Homeowners Association stared in silence.

“Mr. Malloy, we all know how ranchers have misused this land for more than a century. You overgrazed it, you exploited it, and now you want us to feel sorry for you.”

“This doesn’t have anything to do with grazing practices. It’s got to do with the fact that pumping water out of the ground for your little show pond out there, just so it can evaporate, is a huge waste. And that doesn’t count all the water you’ll need for your swimming pools and lawn sprinklers and God knows what else. If this keeps up, none of us will have enough water to get through the summer.”

Malloy flung down the preliminary statistics he’d gotten from the county water district. It wasn’t just the lake, of course, the whole subdivision was putting a drain on the water table. The number of houses grew with the developers’ ambitions, and now they felt a golf course was a necessity because of the “high caliber” of homeowner they planned to attract. And that was before the factory began production and sopped up hundreds of millions more gallons a year. Malloy never knew computer chips needed so much water–-ten times as much as cows. 

The lake, though, seemed to make a blatant mockery of it all. It was as if the homies had just moved in and decided to help themselves to all the resources. The lake hadn’t been included in the original plans for the subdivision. It had been slipped in later, an “aesthetic enhancement” the developer had called it.

“There is plenty of water. I’ve studied it myself. These people,” Witherspoon said, motioning to the other board members, “will tell you no one is more concerned about environmental issues than I. But I hardly think one lake is going to suck up all the water.”

“I don’t know how much studying you’ve done of what, but this isn’t some Ivy League class project. Have you considered the evaporation rate for that fountain? We’re looking at a third straight year of drought. I’ve lived here all my life. I can remember my mama not washing clothes so we’d have water for the cows. This isn’t something you want to mess with.”

By now they were leaning across the table, noses inches apart. Everyone else in the room was frozen. Then he said it. Witherspoon crossed the line.

“Your ‘mama’s’ bad hygiene doesn’t have anything to do with us.” He bobbed his head derisively to accent the word “mama.”

The fist flew before Malloy knew he’d let it go. Or at least that’s what he told himself. Truth is, he’d never expected Witherspoon to just stand there and take it. Anyone in Conquistador who’d ever dared to say something like that would have thrown up their guard before they finished talking.

From The Big Empty, copyright 2021 by Loren C. Steffy. Stoney Creek Publishing Group LLC.

Get your copy of The Big Empty online, at your favorite bookstore, or save 25% by ordering directly from Stoney Creek Publishing.

On the banks of Lake Nosebleed

It’s been a while since I posted anything from The Big Empty, so here’s another excerpt from the novel. You can get your copy online, at your favorite bookstore, or save 25% by ordering directly from Stoney Creek Publishing.

Trace Malloy’s fist landed firmly in the middle of the other man’s nose. He could feel the bridge give under the force of his knuckles, and he knew he’d broken it. It wasn’t much of a punch, just a quick jab that he pulled back instantly, as if to say he was sorry.

       But he wasn’t sorry. As the anger and adrenaline coursed through him, Malloy felt no regret for hitting Blaine Witherspoon. God knows, the arrogant son of a bitch had it coming. He was sorry, though, about the implications, about the long lectures he’d receive about building bridges or mending fences or whatever other type of psychological construction was supposed to be going on.

       Witherspoon lay in a crumpled, whimpering mass on the floor. Several of the other newly transplanted homeowners who’d attended the meeting hovered around him, one or two shooting hateful glances at Malloy. Witherspoon’s glasses were shattered, and blood gushed from his nostrils. He tried to cup it with his hand, but it flowed around and through his fingers. His head hung limply on his chest, which heaved as he gasped for air.

       One of the homeowners wheeled around, locking his sights on Malloy. He took a step in Malloy’s direction. Malloy stood still, looking down at Witherspoon and not saying anything.

       “I think you’d better leave,” the man said, trying to stare Malloy down. Malloy looked back at him calmly. He could tell the man was scared, and he knew he could send him into the corner with Witherspoon if he had to. Then again, Malloy hadn’t come to the meeting looking for a fight, at least not a fistfight.

       Others from the group were staring at him now, too, and Malloy rested his eyes on each one. The man in front of him was pasty and fat, about five foot four and wearing the open collared Oxford shirt that the homeowners seemed to favor. Malloy tried to recall his name. Swan? Swail? Swain? Howard, he thought, Howard Swain. He’d met him a half dozen or so times in the months since he’d first collided with Witherspoon and the others had begun arriving in town. He remembered Witherspoon’s name, of course, because of the collision. He’d learned it during the insurance settlements. But it was hard to keep the other newcomers straight. The homies — as Malloy had started calling them, largely as an inside joke with himself — pretty much kept to themselves. They didn’t come to the feed store or the propane shop or take their cars to Terry Garrison’s garage, so most of the townspeople in Conquistador hadn’t gotten to know them. They didn’t go to church, didn’t wave when they drove past you in town, didn’t say hello on the street on the rare occasions when they actually came downtown.

       Beads of sweat had broken on Swain’s forehead, and Malloy stood motionless, returning the stare. He looked to the others lining up behind Swain. Several were wearing coats and ties, representatives of the developers from Lubbock who were building the housing subdivision at AzTech’s request. Technically, they still controlled the homeowners association, and Malloy had hoped they would understand his concerns.

       They understood only money, and right now, the money was coming from Witherspoon and his burgeoning band of geeks. The developers were willing to do whatever Witherspoon wanted, as long as he paid for it. So they now stood with the homies, aligned with the flow of money regardless of whether they understood the issues. The moment hung silent and pregnant between them, Swain pointing toward the door, frozen except for his moistening pores. Malloy had no intention of continuing the confrontation. It had already slipped from his grasp.

       “I said, you need to leave,” Swain pressed again, finding courage amid the fear that floated up from his corpulent frame, carried on the acrid odor of his perspiration.        

       “I reckon,” Malloy said finally. As he opened the door of the community center, he heard Witherspoon’s shaky voice coming after him.

       “I’m going to sue you, Malloy. You can’t get away with this. You’re nothing but a thug, a…a…bully. That’s what you are.”

       If the homeowners had been able to see Malloy’s face, they might have spotted the row of white teeth breaking through the bushy overhang of his mustache. He didn’t laugh out loud, but he couldn’t contain the smile.

       A bully? Malloy thought, as he ground the key in the ignition of the pickup. So now he was the bad guy. The homies had gotten everything they wanted, and it still wasn’t enough.

       He wound the pickup around the carefully paved road leading to the main entrance. To his right, the fountain spurted shamelessly, illuminated by the spotlights planted just under the surface. The flow of its fingers seemed to dance in the light before hitting the sprawling expanse of the surface. After tonight, they might want to call it Lake Nosebleed, Malloy thought, chuckling to himself. He was still too angry to feel bad about what had happened.

       The headlights of the pickup settled briefly on the massive limestone sign with “Rolling Ranch Estates” carved into it. He waited for the electric gate to roll back. Yet another annoyance. Most people in Conquistador didn’t lock their doors at night. These people were locking their neighborhood. The town didn’t even have a full-time policeman. It had never needed one. Yet these people, beholden to their city-spawned fears, felt they had something so precious that even out here it had to be protected, even if it inconvenienced everybody else.

Malloy understood the desire to protect property, but these people weren’t interested in what he considered property. They had no land, and they didn’t want any. They built huge houses so close together that two people could barely walk between them. Their yards were little bigger than the pools they all had to have. The gate was supposed to keep out undesirables or protect all the fancy stuff inside their slapped-together houses. What thief would come all the way out here for that? And if he did, where would he sell the stuff he stole? The town of Conquistador was protected by the greatest of crime prevention tools—apathy. No one in Conquistador cared what the homies hoarded in their houses, and no one outside of Conquistador thought much about the town or the people in it.

The new chip plant could change that. Hell, if it succeeded, it might even make Conquistador the focus of national attention, of business interest—business investment. But it came at a price he was just beginning to understand. Progress meant economic opportunity, but it also meant imported habits, demands, and fears that he hadn’t really anticipated.

[From The Big Empty, copyright 2021 by Loren C. Steffy. Stoney Creek Publishing Group LLC.]

‘Patently Unfair’ Revisited

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a story about U.S. District Judge Rodney Gilstrap in Marshall, Texas, who presides over one of the country’s largest patent-litigation dockets. According to the Journal:

No federal judge in America has heard more patent-infringement lawsuits in the past decade than Rodney Gilstrap, who presides over a small courthouse in Marshall, Texas.

He also holds another record: Judge Gilstrap has taken on 138 cases since 2011 that involved companies in which he or a family member had a financial interest, more than any other federal judge, a Wall Street Journal investigation shows.

The companies included Microsoft Corp. (53 cases), Walmart Inc. (36 cases), Target Corp. (25 cases) and International Business Machines Corp. (9 cases).

A 1974 federal law requires judges to disqualify themselves from cases if they, their spouse or minor children hold a financial interest in a plaintiff or defendant, including the interest of a beneficiary in assets held by a trust.

The story goes into much more detail on Gilstrap’s investments in companies that came before his court.

Back in 2014, I wrote a piece for Texas Monthly about Marshall and its patent litigation “rocket docket.” Then, as now, the out-of-the-way East Texas hamlet remains popular with some of the world’s largest tech companies when they’re looking to enforce their intellectual property claims.

As I wrote at the time:

Over the years, Marshall has earned a reputation as the intellectual property equivalent of a speed trap, a place where juries smack big companies with huge judgments. And over the years federal lawmakers have tried to do something about it, with little success. The U.S. Supreme Court and the federal appeals court in New Orleans have enacted restrictions on new filings. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia declared Marshall “a renegade jurisdiction.” During his last State of the Union address, President Barack Obama was likely thinking about the town when he decried “costly, needless” patent litigation. 

As a federal jurisdiction, Marshall has always been a bit unusual. Without an FBI office or a U.S. attorney, its criminal docket is lighter than those at many federal courthouses, which are bogged down with drug cases. But it hardly seems like the ideal venue for intellectual property debates, which are challenging for jurors; only 20 percent of the town’s adult population hold bachelor’s degrees. But the locals have grown up on the edge of one of the world’s richest oil reservoirs, and royalty battles with oil companies have created a strong sense of property rights, whether they relate to patents or minerals. “Marshall was always popular with plaintiff’s lawyers,” says Judith Guthrie, a former federal magistrate judge in nearby Tyler. “The perception was that juries weren’t as sophisticated as in other parts of the district.”

That story hearkened to my days as a tech reporter, covering Dallas-based Texas Instruments, which really made Marshall the courthouse of choice for patent lawsuits.

Three days at Camp David and a year in Cyprus

Jeffrey Garten’s new book, Three Days at Camp David,has worked its way to the top of my reading pile. Why would I want to spend some 300 pages studying a change in monetary policy from 50 years ago? 

Well, I’m a bit of a money nerd, having covered business for more than 30 years, including a decade or so covering regional Federal Reserve banks. But the main reason is more personal. The Camp David meetings in 1971 led to President Nixon’s decision to sever the dollar from the gold supply. The effects of that decision hit home for my family a year later and half a world away. 

In 1972, we had moved to the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus, where my father was reassembling the sunken fragments of a 2,300-year-old Greek merchant ship in the coastal hamlet of Kyrenia. 

My book, The Man Who Thought Like a Ship,tells the story of how my dad, a small-town electrician at the time, found himself in a position of rebuilding an ancient ship on the other side of the world, but the point is that then, as now, nautical archaeology doesn’t happen without funding.  

My parents were counting on a UNESCO grant to pay our living expenses for a year. The grant not only paid my father’s salary, it also had an expense account that enabled him to buy tools and equipment. 

The decision to decouple the dollar from the gold standard caused the dollar’s value to fall, and the decline accelerated as the Watergate scandal unfolded. UNESCO paid its grantees in U.S. dollars, but the Cypriot pound was tied to the British pound in those days. At first, my parents just faced the concern that the money wouldn’t go as far. Then, UNESCO began cutting back on grantees, starting with the newest ones. My dad was near the top of the list. 

He was chasing a dream, but he was also practical. He told Michael Katzev, the director of the Kyrenia Ship Project, that without the grant, he’d have to return to the U.S. and resume his electrician’s job. He support a family on no income. 

It was the first time I remembered my parents being openly worried about money. They rarely discussed their finances, and in fact, I had no idea what my parents made or how grave the situation in Cyprus was until I started writing my book. But I remember my mother telling me we might be leaving early, and I knew my dad would never leave the Kyrenia Ship unfinished unless the situation was dire. 

When you’re a child, seeing your parents in distress leaves an impression. So I wanted to understand more about this monetary policy decision that wound up having such an impact on my family. 

Our personal crisis itself was averted. Katzev told my father he would figure something out, and he did. “Michael somehow scraped some funding together to keep me on; I have always suspected it was his own money,” my dad wrote years later. 

The financial struggles would continue for the next few years, and my dad did, in fact, go without an income for a few years until he joined the faculty of Texas A&M University in 1976. 

The Camp David meetings may have “transformed the global economy,” as Garten’s subtitle says, but it almost undermined the transformation of my father’s career and derailed his dreams. 

In a subtle way, it also influenced my approach to business writing. I’ve always gravitated toward stories about the unintended consequences of money, and as a columnist at the Houston Chronicle, I frequently wrote about how esoteric monetary issues affected ordinary people, often in ways they hadn’t thought about. So I’d like to better understand one of the most important money policy decisions of my lifetime, and I’ll be interested to read Garten’s perspective.    

A random encounter with a grumpy cowboy

On the second day of our Colorado vacation, I met a grumpy cowboy. 

As we came down the road from Cottonwood Pass, between Buena Vista and the Taylor Reservoir, my wife suggested that we take the back way, turning north and looping around past Spring Creek — the first place we camped in Colorado some 30 years ago. 

Soon after the paved road turned to dirt, traffic was stopped by a small cattle drive. The herd was being driven by one cowboy and one cowgirl on horseback, another man in an all-terrain vehicle, and two cow dogs. We watched them work. The dogs, in particular, were incredible. As soon as they spotted a straggler, they would spring into action, nipping at the heels of the wayward cows and bringing them back to the group.   

Because of the hills on one side of the road and a creek on the other, the cowhands had to drive the herd up the road, toward the waiting traffic. As they moved forward, the cars behind them, where we were, began inching up. At one point, the camper in front us pulled forward, basically splitting the herd. Suddenly, we found ourselves with cows on both sides of us, and the dogs and cowhands frantically trying to collect the stragglers amid the cars.

I could hear the lead cowboy cussing as he road toward us. It was a warm sunny day, and his felt hat was soaked through with sweat.  

Unsure what to do, I started to inch forward, thinking it would allow them better access to the separated cows. Then, one of the dogs ran close to our Jeep, and I stopped. The cowboy turned toward me. I nodded. 

He wasn’t pleased. He pointed at me and said, “That dog is worth more than your life.” 

I told him I was watching the dog. After all, that’s why I stopped. It wasn’t a situation that lent itself to a lot of explanation, but I felt bad to be adding to his obvious frustration. 

I had to think that if they had more help, they might have been able to manage the traffic as well as the cows, or at least communicated with the motorists. But, of course, the economics of ranching don’t allow for an abundance of labor. Ranches, like many other businesses, are shorthanded these days, and the day rates they pay cowhands has been declining for decades. 

I could sympathize with the difficulty of moving cattle down a public road in an area that attracts tourists, including dirt bikes and loud off-road vehicles that can spook the cows. But mostly, I found myself replaying the scene from The Big Empty in which Blaine Witherspoon gets too close to Trace Malloy’s cutting horse. Witherspoon is imagining himself adjusting to his new surrounding, resting his foot on the corral fence. Just as he begins to feel confident, Malloy’s voice cut into his thoughts. 

“Son, you’re in about the worst place you could possibly be.” 

When the cows were finally clear of the road, I drove on, feeling rather Witherspoon-ish for a few miles. But something else bothered me. Writing a book means making thousands of little decisions, and often, you find yourself surprised at something you overlooked. Now, as we wound along the dirt mountain road, I thought: I should have given Malloy a dog.   

Why name a ranch ‘Conquistador?’

The Big Empty, New Mexico version: sunset outside Taos (photo: Laura Steffy)

I recently wrapped up a vacation in Colorado and New Mexico by spending a few days in Taos. For most of my trip, I’d been wearing one of the Conquistador Ranch hats that I’d had made for The Big Empty. 

When I got to Taos, I found myself rethinking my choice of headgear.

The region is home to eight Native American pueblos, including the Taos Pueblo, which has been inhabited continuously for 1,000 years. In the late 1500s, the conquistadors, sanctioned by the King of Spain, moved into the area and, true to their name, conquered the pueblo people, leading to 100 years of conflict. As part of the process, the Spanish forced the native peoples to convert to Christianity and introduced diseases such as small pox. 

Given that history, and assuming that many New Mexicans weren’t familiar with The Big Empty—at least not yet—I decided perhaps wearing a Conquistador Ranch hat wouldn’t be respectful to the place I was in. 

I also thought about a few critical comments I’ve received on social media about the choice of the name. 

Why did I pick a controversial moniker for my fictional ranch in the first place? Well, I wanted something that captured, if you will, the vast history of the land and of Texas. And I thought the name accentuated the conflict between the past and the present that was a theme of the book. 

At one point, I had a scene in which Blaine Witherspoon criticized the ranch’s name and suggested it be changed because of the repressive history of the conquistadors. 

I wound up cutting that scene, purely for reasons related to the overall structure of the story itself. Witherspoon was already enough of a jerk. Indeed, much of the rewriting in recent years had focused on making him more sympathetic. So in an effort to soften his character, I decided to limit his indignations to the issues that tied directly into the plot. 

The other reason for the cut was pacing. The scene occurred when Witherspoon was visiting the ranch during the roundup, and I felt that it distracted from the other events of that chapter. 

But in light of my time in Taos, where the impact of the Spanish conquest remains important social context, I found myself thinking about that scene. So I dug it out of an early draft, and here it is: 

Witherspoon looked around and took a deep breath. Despite the desolation of the place, and the mounting heat of the late-morning sun, he couldn’t deny there was a beauty to it. 

“It’s sure is amazing out here,” he said to Malloy, trying to play on the cowboy’s sympathies. 

“It grows on you,” Malloy said. 

“It’s too bad the name detracts from the beauty,” Witherspoon said, before he could stop himself. 

“The name?”

Witherspoon winced. He’d only been in Malloy’s presence for a few minutes and he was already stirring up conflict. But he couldn’t stop himself. How could the cowboy be so obtuse as to go to work each day in a place whose very name represented what amounted to genocide?

“Conquistador,” he said. “They, uh, weren’t very nice people. They conquered, they basically enslaved people in their quest for gold, they brought disease, they suppressed native religions and forced the indigenous peoples to convert to Christianity. Thousands died. Entire culture were nearly wiped out. Not exactly a heroic namesake.” 

Malloy stared at him for a minute. It was bad enough he had to conduct this little slicker show, now he had to defend the name of the ranch itself?. He bit his lip. 

“I didn’t name it,” he said flatly. 

“I understand, but it seems like the owners of the ranch might want to change the name.”

“Change the name?” Malloy said incredulously. “Do you know what that would cost? The name is known all over the West. The brand is recognized. It’s been the name for over a hundred years. You can’t just change it because someone shows up from Silly-cone Valley and decides they don’t like it.”

“I guess it just depends what you want your name to represent.”

“It represents all this,” Malloy said, waving his hand across the expanse of the land. He took a deep breath, and added. “It was named by a bunch of Scotsmen a hundred years ago. You’d have to take it up with them.”

Besides, he thought to himself, how much longer would the brand endure? What would be the point of changing it now?

What would Boone say about the Big 12 breakup?

T. Boone Pickens, who grew up in Holdenville, used to reminisce childhood trips with his father to Norman to watch University of Oklahoma football games. He even remembered discussions with his father decades ago when the University of Nebraska considered leaving the Big Six for the Big Ten and what it would mean for his favorite teams.

So I found myself wondering what Pickens would make of the decision by OU and the University of Texas to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. The move could put his alma mater — Oklahoma State, where he’s the biggest donor and where his name adorns the football stadium — in dire straits.

While school loyalty would definitely play into his feelings, I think if Pickens were alive today, he’d have other reasons for wanting to keep the Big 12 together. During the last realignment, in 2011, he thought it was a mistake for Texas A&M, which he attended his freshman year, to leave for the SEC.

“They’re moving out of Texas when they do that,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a smart deal.”

Today, many Aggies may not agree given their recruiting success in recent years under SEC mega-coach Jimbo Fisher. In fact, A&M has probably benefitted from being the only Texas school in the SEC, which means it isn’t thrilled about its old rivals from Austin diluting its big draw for the state’s most promising young athletes.

But back in 2011, before the Aggies made their decision, Pickens bemoaned the conference realignment, which at the time included speculation that many Big 12 schools, including OSU, would hightail it to the PAC 10.

“I don’t want the Big 12 to break up,” he said at the time. “I don’t want to go to the Pac 10.”

He explained his reasoning in football terms: joining the Pac 10 meant being relegated to the less-prestigious Eastern Division, and it would be harder to rise to prominence against the dominant Western Division teams.

But I think there was a deeper reason: pride of place. Pickens loved Oklahoma, and he loved the idea of teams from the heartland playing each other. The Big 12 elevated the prominence of those heartland schools and gave them a unique showcase.

Just as many Texans still believe A&M and UT should be in the same conference, Pickens felt strongly that OU and OSU should stay together. An increasingly misnamed Big 12 just isn’t the same.

“There’s too much tradition just to wash it out and we scatter,” he said. “I think OU and Oklahoma State will stick together if something happens. We’re kind of a stick-together crowd in this state.”

Not anymore. OU is headed for the Big Money, leaving a shattered Big 12 in its wake. OSU is left to either once again try for the Pac 10 or try to keep some sort of conference together with Big 12 flotsam like Texas Tech and Baylor.

If Pickens were alive, he probably would have been working behind the scenes long before anything was announced. He might have reminded UT that he gave $100 million to two of its medical schools in 2007.

As a businessman, Pickens might have understood UT and OU’s financial reasons for leaving, but even an erstwhile corporate raider knows some things are more important than money.

As my co-author, Chrysta Castañeda, pointed out, Pickens believed in loyalty. She saw that first hand representing him during the court case at the center of our book, The Last Trial of T. Boone Pickens. He would have wanted the Big 12 schools to honor their commitment to each other, and honor their fans by keeping regional teams together.

As an Aggie myself, I believe A&M made the right move in leaving for the SEC a decade ago, and I take some satisfaction in seeing UT, after a decade of jealous criticism, finally admitting the Aggies made the smart move all along. But playing in the SEC isn’t the same. Sure, it’s great to beat Alabama on their own turf, but it doesn’t have the satisfaction of trouncing the Longhorns in Austin.

School rivalries are the bedrock of college sports, and they exist because of proximity. Who cares if you beat some school three states away? It’s more fun to beat the guys just down the highway.

OU may benefit from joining the SEC, just as A&M did, but it’s losing something, too. For all his influence, Pickens probably couldn’t have stopped the breakup of the Big 12. But he would have reminded everyone that pride of place still has value.

His friends referred to his favorite expressions as “Booneisms,” and one of them applies to the Big 12 split: 

“If you want to make a deal badly enough, you’ll make a bad deal.”

Perhaps in the modern world of college sports, value is measured only in dollar signs. Perhaps the quaint notions of state rivalries and hometown football games no longer matter. And perhaps it’s ironic to invoke the memory of a billionaire to argue that money isn’t everything.

But if Pickens were alive, he would see the greater value is in what’s being lost — not just for OSU, but for everyone in the Big 12.

‘Deconstructed:’ Coming soon in paperback

When Joe Biden won the presidential election, about a month after the release of Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades, hopes ran high that long-awaited immigration reform legislation might finally arrive this year. 

That, of course, hasn’t happened. In fact, the political divide remains as intractable as ever. Lawmakers seem determined to avoid solutions, regardless of public sentiment. Our elected officials insist on hiding behind a wall of denial when it comes to immigration issues. 

My co-author, Stan Marek, a Houston business owner who’s has been fighting for reform for almost 20 years, has been increasingly concerned that the opportunity to bring rationality to our immigration policy could once again be slipping away. 

That’s why we’ve decided to put out an updated version of Deconstructed next year. It will be a paperback release, but it will have new material that will bring the immigration story through the pandemic, the final days of the Trump administration, and the promise and pitfall of the Biden administration’s efforts. 

Stan and I are already working on the new material, and I think you’ll find it’s a great update to the book. Look for it in bookstores and online in late spring 2022. 

Pod people: Casting about for new ideas

Everyone, it seems, podcasting. Why should I be any different? 

I co-host a weekly interview show about immigration issues at the Rational Middle. In fact, we’re closing in on our 100th episode. 

I recently interviewed author Jessica Goudeau about her excellent book After the Last Border,which just came out in paperback.

My involvement  with the Rational Middle stemmed from my book Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades.The book and the first season of the video series were produced simultaneously. The podcast originally was designed to augment the videos and react more quickly to the news. When the pandemic hit and filing new video episodes became impossible, the podcast became our main focus. (We’re now ramping up the production schedule for new videos — but the podcast will continue. )

 As the COVID-19 outbreak was gaining steam in the U.S., I was in discussions with a media partner about producing a six- to eight-episode podcast for the 10th anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The podcast would have updated my book on the disaster from 2010, Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit.(The book is out of print at the moment, but used copies are available online, and I released an updated audio version last year.) 

The pandemic — and the corresponding plunge in oil prices — meant the podcast never got made. At least Sarah Silverman didn’t have to send the Pod Squad after me.  

I’m always looking for new podcast ideas. What podcasts or audio storytelling would you like to see? Or, to Silverman’s point, has the format jumped the shark? 

Heard any good books lately?

I’ve done audio versions of three of my books: Drowning in Oil, Deconstructed, and my biography of George P. Mitchell. I’ve been planning an audio version of my novel, The Big Empty, which I had hoped to record at the end of last year. Things got busy, and it hasn’t happened yet. 

On the one hand, audio books are a popular new format, and they offer a chance to do a lot of unique things with story telling — things that I haven’t even begun to explore. 

So, as I once again think about producing the audio version of The Big Empty, I’m wondering whether I should record it myself, as I did with my previous audio books, or hire a voice actor. I know this sounds strange coming from a former newspaper columnist, but I don’t like to listen to my own voice. However, several members of George Mitchell’s family said they thought I should record the biography myself. I decided to do Drowning in Oil as a test case, and then having two under my belt, I decided to go ahead with Deconstructed.

I find the audio format interesting. In some ways, you can enhance the storytelling, and as a reader, I like listening to audio books when I have a long drive or when I’m working out. (I switch back to print when I read in the evenings.)

I’ve also thought that another of my books, The Last Trial of T. Boone Pickens, would lend itself to an old-fashioned radio play, with different voice actors reading the various parts. That would require creating a script from the book, finding multiple actors and a studio where we could record the whole thing. In other words, it’s likely to be time-consuming and expensive, and I don’t know how many people would want to listen to it. But I think the results would be interesting. 

It’s always hard to tell how these things will resonate with an audience. Do you like audio books? Would you prefer authors read their own books, or would you rather have other people voice the narrative? Would you listen to a radio play — perhaps a multi-episode series like a podcast —involving a West Texas oil and gas trial and a famous billionaire, told through the eyes of the lawyer who represented him?